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Ghosts of Colorado Springs Past

The built heritage of our city is threatened by growth and development. What can be done about it?



The smoke and flames that enveloped the historic Denver & Rio Grande Depot building a couple of weeks ago reminded us that we can't take the built heritage of this community for granted; even the finest structures are fragile and perishable. Thanks to our firefighters, the building was saved, and we can all look forward to its speedy repair, and to business as usual at Giuseppe's Restaurant. Indeed, fire was once the greatest threat to any city's historic buildings. Until this century, virtually every American city had experienced a devastating fire, which typically destroyed entire neighborhoods. In Colorado, Denver burned, Cripple Creek burned, and, in the conflagration which destroyed the original Antlers Hotel a century ago, Colorado Springs burnt.

It's unlikely that historic Colorado Springs will ever again be destroyed by fire. But there are other threats which are more subtle and just as destructive.

Historic buildings, even entire neighborhoods, are often acquired by institutions and allowed to deteriorate, are moved or are simply demolished. And city policies regarding traffic, zoning, economic development, and growth can affect the integrity and viability of historic neighborhoods, often to their detriment.

Decades ago, the North End Homeowners Association was formed to preserve the area as a single-family residential neighborhood, just north of downtown. The Colonial Dames saved McAllister House (423 N. Cascade Ave.) from demolition, and the intrepid Gen. Ken Curtis led the successful fight to preserve the old county courthouse, which now houses the Pioneers Museum in the heart of downtown at Nevada and Vermijo Streets.

And thanks to civic leader Dave Hughes, mayor pro-tem Leon Young, then city development director Jim Ringe, and scores of others, Old Colorado City was revived, restored and brilliantly re-created.

We've preserved a lot, but we've lost a lot as well. Many old-timers remember with shame and dismay the destruction of the second Antlers Hotel and the Burns Opera House in the late '60s for reasons that made little sense at the time, and make absolutely none today. Next time you park in the lot at the corner of Cascade and Pikes Peak Avenues, remember that in the space where your clunker rests, there was once a stage where Pavlova danced. Now that's progress, right?

Elected officials, and the governments they run, rarely admit error. That's why the city has never officially disowned its two disastrous attempts at urban renewal.

First, in the '70s the city razed several-dozen perfectly good, Victorian commercial buildings downtown along Colorado, Costilla and Cascade, creating parking lots which were eventually replaced by drab, international-style buildings that would be right at home in any suburban office park. Not content to rest on their laurels, city administrators in the '80s launched an ambitious plan to replace the viable, if shabby, historic working-class neighborhood that surrounded Lowell School with a grandiose public-private development.

In partnership with Charles Murfin, a developer from Wichita, Kan., the city spent millions in tax dollars to buy out area residents and raze their homes. None of the city's plans ever came to fruition; instead, the neighborhood was utterly destroyed and remains a wilderness of boarded-up houses and weedy vacant lots.

Plans are afoot for a new development at Lowell, based on the New Urbanism model. Local developer Earl Robertson may well succeed in replacing the vacant lots with a striking, new mixed development, but rebuilding the existing neighborhood would have been far cheaper for the taxpayers.

Dutch Schultz, a former president of the North End Homeowners Association, notes that neighborhood preservation is not a matter of fighting one or two battles, but of fighting dozens of smaller skirmishes year in and year out. Despite the North End's obvious political clout (after all, Mayor Mary Lou Makepeace and Councilman Ted Eastburn are both long-time residents of the area), the neighborhood is, according to Schultz, in no position to let its guard down.

The association's latest newsletter recounts recent battles with the city over the Uintah Bridge, over intersection re-design and over Nevada's continuing status as a truck route. Increased noise from Interstate 25 is also a concern, as are the neighborhood impacts of Colorado College's growth.

North End residents are well-equipped to fight; they can call upon the expertise of dozens of lawyers, architects, business people, educators and community activists. But other neighborhoods, less organized, more transient or simply poor, may be pretty much at the mercy of outside forces.

It may even be that the North End itself -- affluent, sophisticated in the ways of local politics and fiercely protective of its own turf -- may impede efforts at preservation in the rest of the city. After all, activists tend to worry first about their own neighborhoods, and if most of the energy of the local preservation community goes into the defense of the North End, that leaves the rest of the city at greater risk.

Over the last two decades, individual homeowners and small-business people have seen to the preservation, restoration or adaptive re-use of thousands of historic structures in the Pikes Peak region. Look at the lovingly restored commercial buildings in Old Colorado City, Manitou Springs and downtown.

Look at central core neighborhoods like Hillside, Shooks Run, Patty Jewett. Look at Manitou's recently renovated Cliff House, and, downtown, at the Cheyenne Building and the Peak Theater. Often, neighborhood revitalization was sparked by city redevelopment policies which targeted depressed areas with low-interest renovation loans and public investment in decaying infrastructure.

Curiously, these enlightened policies have often co-existed with other city policies that have destabilized or degraded older neighborhoods. Residents of such neighborhoods are particularly angry about city transportation policies, which they believe are widely destructive.

Longtime activist Judith Rice-Jones, who has served on the city park board and on the histori- preservation advisory board, says that the two greatest dangers to residential areas in the core of any city are "a decline in the quality of public schools, and traffic engineers."

Traffic engineers, she believes, are ruled by the four commandments of mobility: flatter, wider, straighter, faster. She notes that the streets and boulevards of historic city cores were laid out more than a century ago and were never designed for the automobile. By allowing them to be used as high-speed arterials, the neighborhoods they serve are damaged beyond repair.

City traffic planners cheerfully admit that historic residential neighborhoods and high-speed traffic can't easily co-exist, but their solution is not one that is likely to please those neighborhoods. Some months ago, John Merritt, a blunt-spoken city traffic engineer, said that he could only conceive of two long-term solutions to the problems on North Nevada: One would be to eliminate the historic center medians to allow for easier traffic flows; the other would be to rezone Nevada to eliminate residential uses.

Asked for her reaction to these solutions, Rice-Jones was speechless. Eventually, she recovered enough to note that engineers need to re-focus their thinking and consider that communities have needs other than mobility.

Architect Mark Nelson, writing about the city's proposed redesign of three North End intersections, notes that the primary goal of the redesign was to improve safety and provide traffic calming. Instead, he says, "SCIP directives have been ignored by the city," and the city will spend $1.4 million for "NO traffic calming." Maybe, he concludes, "someday we'll have city departments who know how to do good design, instead of this pseudo-publi- involvement waste of time and money."

Joyce Stivers, who is spearheading the newly-formed Historic Preservation Alliance, a group of citizens interested in creating a coherent preservation strategy for the city, believes that apparently innocuous city policies, such as streetlighting, may also adversely affect historic districts. She notes that the city has, inexplicably, installed no less than five high-intensity streetlights at the intersection of Cascade and Monument. The resulting glare makes the neighborhood less livable and, Stivers believes, encourages drivers to go faster.

City policies, however misguided, can be changed; but a historic building, once destroyed, is gone for good. In the last few years, we've lost many Victorian buildings, most of them leveled in the name of progress by either governments or non-profit institutions.

Let's call the roll:

All of the houses in the enclave between Mesa and Monument Streets, on the west side of Cascade Avenue, demolished by the then-First National Bank in 1987 for an anticipated re-development. The property remained vacant for nine years, before being sold for substantially less than it would have brought with intact structures.

Nearly 200 houses on the west side of I-25 between the Uintah and Bijou St. exits, condemned for widening.

Approximately 70 houses in the Lowell neighborhood southeast of downtown.

The Dixie Apartments and the Olsen building (once the site of the Rousselle Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg dealership), taken down by the First Presbyterian Church in 1998.

The Hidden Inn in the Garden of the Gods, demolished by the city in 1997.

Half a dozen houses and structures bordering the Colorado College campus, either moved or razed to clear the ground for implementation of the college's new master plan.

More than 20 houses that were moved or razed to make room for the expansion of Penrose Hospital during the last two decades.

They're gone, and that's that. But what about neighborhoods and buildings that are currently threatened, but are still intact? Such as:

The Manitou Spa. Rundown, flood-damaged and condemned, but still structurally sound. Let's hope that the prospective new owners can figure out how to finance its renovation.

The three city blocks bounded by Boulder, Platte, Sheridan and Farragut that Memorial Hospital has expressed interest in acquiring for its long-term expansion plans.

The Udick building, next to First Presbyterian Church downtown, a bowstring truss structure originally built as a garage in the early years of the century. The city plans to rip it down to provide parking places for City Council members and citizens when the old City Hall is renovated and becomes, in effect, the new City Hall. (Presumably, the city's multi-million-dollar parking structure just across the street is too far to walk.)

The fine old house at 39-41 West Cache la Poudre, owned by the Fine Arts Center, whose desire for more parking will probably doom this building.

The entire neighborhood bordered by Sierra Madre and Conejos streets south of downtown. As the Independent reported ("Mystery buyer stirs up neighborhood," Dec. 2), a prominent local real-estate brokerage is attempting to acquire every house in the neighborhood on behalf of an unnamed investor.

This last is a good example of what happens to neighborhoods, such as Lowell or the near Westside, that the city essentially abandons. In a kind of urban triage, the city has directed millions in tax dollars to favored areas, while withholding such funding from neighborhoods that city bureaucrats have deemed unsalvageable. Such policies doomed Lowell and the neighborhoods that used to border I-25, and may have encouraged the anonymous investor who has calculated, probably correctly, that the city won't lift a finger to save this scruffy, raffish and down-at-the-heels working class neighborhood.

Colorado College is the 900-pound gorilla of historic preservation in this community.

Consider this: the College neighboring the North End owns approximately 75 Victorian structures, all of which were originally single-family houses. CC owns every building in the three blocks bordered by Uintah, Weber, Cache la Poudre and Nevada. The college owns at least eight historic mansions, some built by city founder Gen. William Jackson Palmer's associates, others by newly-minted Cripple Creek millionaires a century ago.

Over the years, the college has expanded into adjoining neighborhoods, often to the dismay of surrounding homeowners. And in a stunning display of clout a generation ago, the college persuaded the city to rezone hundreds of properties to the east and south of the college (which, it should be noted, the college didn't own) to allow a wide latitude of commercial uses. Predictably, this upzoning destabilized the neighborhood by encouraging the transformation of houses into offices, by paving the back yards for parking and by irrevocably altering what was once a residential neighborhood.

CC's master plan calls for no further expansion into neighborhoods, but residents of the areas impacted by the so-called Special Use zone are trying to revise it. A number of them want to preserve not only the historic streetscapes, but also the historic landscapes.

Neighborhood activist Becky Cramer points out that the linked, landscaped back yards that define historic residential blocks in Colorado Springs are in danger of being replaced by treeless asphalt parking areas. She points to the east side of Cascade Avenue in the 700 block where, thanks to permissive zoning, the entire block has flipped to office use. The streetscape remains; the landscape has disappeared. Cramer would like to see back yards preserved, whether or not buildings have been converted to office use.

For many years, Colorado College was hostile to historic preservation and oblivious to its own rich architectural heritage. The Coburn Library, a lovely sandstone building, was demolished in the '60s, as were a number of other Victorian structures. In their place rose kitschy, mock-modernist buildings such as the Tutt Library and Armstrong Hall.

Indeed, most colleges in the country followed a similar course. Architecture that we now see as rich, vibrant, subtle and allusive was derided at mid-century as clumsy, over-ornamented and pretentious. Our eyes now see differently, but many historic buildings on college campuses have vanished.

Thankfully, CC has changed its thinking about historic preservation. Since the current wave of construction on campus started a couple of years ago, the college has done its best to avoid outright demolition of any existing buildings. Between Nevada and Weber, the college relocated several frame houses but has preserved, and even enhanced, the appearance of the neighborhood.

Unhappily, such sensibility appears to be confined to the new East Campus. On Wood Avenue below Uintah, where the college is constructing new dorms, the historic character of this once-magnificent residential street was largely ignored. Half a dozen buildings were simply moved from the neighborhood (four went all the way to the Westside, where they'll become affordable housing) to make way for new residence halls.

North Enders, who opposed the project as incompatible with their neighborhood, managed to negotiate some changes, but, as Dutch Schultz ruefully admitted, "They made a lot of changes; more than we expected -- but I'm not sure that it's really much better than it was."

In 1880, Frances Wolcott and her husband began construction of their new house in the 9-year-old city of Colorado Springs. Located at the corner of Nevada and San Rafael, just next to the "college reservation," Edgeplain was one of the grandest houses ever built in Colorado Springs. In her delightful memoir written 50 years later, Heritage of Years, Wolcott wrote:

"Laying of the cornerstone of our new home, Edgeplain, was by my boy, aged three years, now a grandfather. In kilt and tam-o'-shanter, yellow curls blowing in the wind, he used the trowel and set the stone with hammer's blow. There was a large gathering. Champagne was not a sin; he broke a bottle on the stone, and we served it with a bountiful repast in a tent near the foundations. Through my husband's success and my father's generosity, we had John La Farge's jewelled glass in the transoms of our connecting rooms and lighting the staircase hall."

Edgeplain still stands. For many years a single-family home, it passed into CC ownership several decades ago.

It is utterly magnificent. Constructed of ashlar blocks of hewn local stone, of varying size and coloration, it's a tour de force of stonework and masonry. The design is inspired -- a stone building which manages to be light, airy, and graceful. Its history is rich and varied; Wolcott tells of a dinner, for example, when U.S. Grant, soldier and president, held forth to a worshipful audience of local gentry.

Architecturally and historically, Edgeplain is certainly one of the three or four most important historic residences in Colorado Springs.

And it's a wreck. For many years, Colorado College has used it as student housing and has allowed it to deteriorate. The formerly magnificent interior is virtually unrecognizable. This house, which any private owner would restore and treasure, is, as far as the college is concerned, useful only as a cheap motel. And Edgeplain isn't alone; of the great historic houses that the college owns, most are used as student housing.

Asked whether such uses are appropriate for these buildings, given that they're both fragile and irreplaceable, Colorado College business manager David Lord replied that the college maintains them as best it can, that they intend to keep them, and that students like to live in them. Pressed, he finally stated: "We have to use them for what we have to use them for."

Lord's remark helps to illustrate the real dilemma that preservationists face. Institutions, businesses, or individuals may support preservation, but not if it conflicts with other goals that seem more important at the time.

For example, when the college first began to create its new master plan, they commissioned three Denver/Boulder architectural/planning firms to do an historic survey of the campus, and to create a preservation plan.

Completed at the end of 1993, the plan is thoughtful, professional, and complete. Pointing out that three-quarters of its buildings have historic significance, the study strongly recommends that they be renovated, where necessary, to meet accepted preservation standards. Moreover, the report specifically calls for preserving and enhancing the historic houses on Wood Avenue south of Uintah "...the present right-of-way must be returned to its radiant past appearance to give that exuberant glimpse of a grandiose heritage."

Nevertheless, bowing to the pressure of current housing needs, CC removed or demolished most of the structures on lower Wood Avenue recently. Dormitories are to be built there, as well as on the grounds of the historic mansion just north of the Morreale house (1130 N. Cascade Ave.). The institutional goals of providing more student housing will be met, at the cost of failing to preserve an historic neighborhood.

But, as North End resident Steve Stivers notes, a liberal arts college, particularly one which honors its past, (note all of the 125th anniversary banners around the college) ought to see its ownership of properties like Edgeplain as a privilege, not a burden. By renovating and caring for them, the college would teach by example that the past is valuable, that history is worth knowing, and that Colorado College cherishes both its long history and its links to the community that surrounds it.

And, Dutch Schultz adds, CC also needs to recognize what a treasure it has in the Van Briggle Memorial Pottery building, which sits at the intersection of Uintah and Glen. Currently used as the college's maintenance headquarters, it originally housed the kilns and workshops of the Van Briggle Pottery company, founded in Colorado Springs at the turn of the century.

Designed by Nicholas van den Arends, the building is ornamented with thousands of tiles created by Ann Gregory van Briggle. Today, it's surrounded by a cyclone fence and is disfigured by recent additions. Artus van Briggle and his wife Ann were towering figures in the history of American ceramic art; Artus' finest vases from 1901 command impressive prices.

One New York dealer, who refused to be quoted by name, said, "If Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West was on the CC campus, they'd probably use it to teach architecture. Why can't they use the pottery building for ceramic arts or for some kind of education program?"

Even though we do, in fact, have an historic-preservation ordinance locally, Judith Rice-Jones characterizes it as the weakest such ordinance in the state. According to Rice-Jones, 66 municipalities have enacted such ordinances, and ours is one of the few without a "cooling-off" period, a statutory delay between the time a demolition permit is issued and the time that a building is actually torn down. Such a delay enables preservationists to work with the building's owners and seek appropriate solutions.

That'd certainly be an improvement on what we have, but it's still a far cry from the commitment that other cities have made to preserving their past. In Phoenix, where former City of Colorado Springs preservation officer Debbie Abele now supervises a staff of four preservation planners, the city is the buyer of last resort for threatened buildings. When necessary, Phoenix buys, renovates and resells historic structures, and has done so with great success. Here, Abell is missed by those who care about historic preservation in the Springs; tellingly, the city eliminated her post after she left.

Absent any institutional support, preservationists have simply waged guerrilla warfare for many years. And, as in any war, support sometimes comes from unlikely sources.

A few years ago, the city administration brought forward a proposal to gut the old City Auditorium at the corner of Weber and Kiowa streets and turn it into an urgently needed municipal court building.

Their rationale was compelling; the auditorium was lightly used, it was costing the city a couple of hundred thousand annually, and the cost of turning it into a new court building would be $2 to $3 million less than new construction. Given the sad state of city finances, the miserly mood of the voters and the composition of the Council, the auditorium looked like a dead duck. And it would have been, except for one thing: The city's cleverest politician liked the building just the way it was.

Then-Mayor Bob Isaac knew that he couldn't simply say that we ought to preserve it, and to hell with cost. That would have simply played into the hands of then-Council member Cheryl Gillaspie, anti-tax activist Doug Bruce and the newspaper formerly known as the Gazette. Instead, he quietly encouraged all of the people who used the building to show up at a Council informal session to discuss its fate.

That Monday afternoon, Council was packed with a sea of gray and white heads. They were antique dealers, model-railroad builders, cat fanciers; their age spoke one word to every politician on the dais: voters! Regarding the crowd with feigned surprise, Mayor Bob asked, "Are all you folks here because of the City Auditorium?"

"Yes, Mayor, we're very concerned."

"Well, you know that we can't take public comments at an informal meeting. So we have a problem here." Isaac turned to the Council members. "You know," he said, "I think we need to pass this item for now and schedule a public hearing on this matter. After all, who among us would deny these good people the right to be heard?"

At a hearing at the City Auditorium a couple of weeks later,400 people showed up, and not one wanted the building turned into a municipal court. Council members scrambled to distance themselves from the adminstration's unfortunate proposal. Mayor Bob sat there with a benign and gentle smile, having won a battle that none of us even realized he had commanded.

I had breakfast with Mayor Bob the other day and accused him of being a closet liberal preservationist. He just smiled and reminisced about the long history of the City Auditorium, about the concerts, the basketball games, the Scout activities, the tens of thousands of people whose memories include the old auditorium. "You know," he said, "it's good to keep that. You shouldn't let that go."

I thought of Bob's words as Indy photographer Scott Larrick and I walked around Edgeplain, trying to locate the cornerstone that had been laid 120 years before. In a leaf-filled window well, a raccoon lay sleeping. He seemed to be the past made visible, a time when La Farge's glass sparkled in the candlelight, our city was young, and the optimism of the times found expression in the grand houses along Nevada Avenue.

But the raccoon woke up, and we left.

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